1977: Paul James: the new Victorian

The following interview with Coastside carpenter, Paul James written by Bill Hendricks, appeared in Transitions, Montara to Pescadero, an oral history (1977), inspired and edited by Canada College teacher Aida Hinajosa.

Photo of Paul James by Katie Murdock.

In the 1800s a man named James Johnston came to settle in the area now called Half Moon Bay. He came to build his dream house and to take part in the history of California. His house’s construction and the varied ways he brought in his building materials to the isolated area seemed rather bold and unheard of to the local inhabitants. His stylish Victorian lifestyle and his determination to realize his life-long ambition earned him a very noteworthy mention in this area’s folklore.

In the shadow of this great American pioneer now comes another man, who, like Johnston, has started his “dream house.” Although years of change in society and lifestyles have taken place, Paul James of Montara, California, still adheres to Johnston’s philosophy of hard work and blind ambition to see his vision through. Paul’s aptness in the fields of carpentry and architectural design are evident in his Victorian creation a few yards off Highway One in Montara.

As the rough frame and outside shell are painstakingly assembled, Paul, his volunteers and his friends sign the masterpiece with their methodical attention to detail in reproducing a Victorian house. Being a long-time lover of Victorian construction and the beauty of that time which so rapidly disappeared, Paul has retained a high degree of polish that accompanied that age. Starting with his own basic thoughts of what his idea of a house should be and interlacing them with his observations of California Victorian construction, Paul is carving out his own niche in coastside history.

Not only is the house of his own particular design, he also intends to do most all of the construction himself. His method of securing used building materials from salvage jobs in Oakland and San Francisco closely parallels the unorthodox ways of the legendary Johnston himself.

Working with limited financial resources, Paul purchased his land with a low down payment and a self imposed voluntary servitude to his carpentry work in order to start this colossal task of his dream house. He purchased a small flatbed truck, a chain saw, wrecking bars, and other pieces of demolition equipment and went out to secure his building materials.

The complexity of the house’s design itself lends to the overall beauty of the Victorian. Paul’s plans for his witch’s tower for observing ships at sea and other elaborate, ornate construction all remind us of that forgotten age of craftsmanship when time was taken to insure the quality of the work.

As Paul talks of his fascination of the Victorian period and its charm and romanticism, one can feel the excitement within him which pushes him on to complete this monumental project. Being a carpenter and ship builder by trade, he has earned notoriety in building this house and with it has come offers to do specialized wood construction which constitutes the financial support needed to live on and to perpetuate his aspiration. Paul can truly be considered a pioneer and leader in his search for new ways to invest his life with a worthwhile project regardless of his financial circumstances or mode of living. He indomitably develops varied new ways to pursue his interests. His lifestyle and his warm and friendly personality provide a welcome change from the typical everyday madness we all seem to bring on ourselves in the fast pace race to live higher-on-the-hill than the other person. He assimilates his modern technology into the meticulous attention of a craftsman of the Victorian Age.

He has set out to recapture that lost sense of quality and concentration of detail which is now often sorely missed in home construction today. Paul’s plans for living in the house and his tentative plans for the building of a sailboat and possibly the construction of another Victorian for someone else all show us his belief that physical work stimulates the body and the concentration provides the much needed escape from life’s modern day problems.

Paul and his small band of faithful workers are all proud of what they are accomplishing–and without blowing their own horns about it. They have sought to break away from the plastic world which surrounds them and to occupy themselves with a notworthy and worthwhile project.

Bill Hendricks

1977: Diane Gates: “I always wanted to have a bookstore….”

When I first moved here, the only bookstore in town, Coastside Books, was owned by Diane Gates.

The following interview with Half Moon Bay bookstore owner Diane Gates, written by Anne Gawronksy appeared in Transitions, Montara to Pescadero, an oral history (1977), inspired and edited by Canada College teacher Aida Hinajosa.

(Photo: Diane Gates)

“I always wanted to have a bookstore. I think there must be hundreds of people around that have this dream in their minds.”

Diane Gates, petite, dark-haired, dark-eyed owner of the only bookstore in Half Moon Bay, Coastside Books, speaks quietly and gently of how it came about that she owns a store, how she feels about books and people, and how she feels about living in Half Moon Bay. Carefully feeling out for the right words to express her thoughts, she continues:

“I think the people that are book lovers are more interesting all the way around.” And adding an explanation of her opinion, says, “That seems sort of an uninspired thing to say, but it just seems sort of natural to me.”

Being surrounded by books, and not just any books, but well and carefully chosen books, Diane seems to be in her natural environment. She has her own definite feel for the specialness of books stemming from her library training which sharpens book-selection skills. Also, she has experience from working with books for several years.

“I worked four years as a librarian for the County. I studied library science at Berkeley, and started out on the San Mateo Bookmobile, and that was really fun. They had at the time two small Bookmobiles and one large one. It was a really interesting job.

“They also had a permanent library then in Half Moon Bay and I worked there, too. This old library was in a building on Main Street. The library itself wasn’t even on Main Street; it was part of that house in the back of the building, so none of the major traffic could see us, so nobody knew it was there! And it was small than my bookstore!”

Diane gestures toward the cozy space of the shop with its walls stacked high with books. (This interview was held in the wonderful, small, old house that was the first location of Diane’s store.”

“The old library was really teeny-tiny, so if you had more than four patrons at once, you were bumping into each other!” she smiles. “But it was fun.”

However much Diane enjoyed her library work–and she was very happy being children’s librarian in Half Moon Bay–the dream of owning her own store was always with her; four years ago, to her delight, this dream became a reality and she explains how she and her husband began on their enterprising venture:

“A combination of circumstances worked out in my favor. Just about the time I was looking for a new kind of job, this building came up for lease. That was in 1973. I was working at the library at the time and driving by here every day and I saw the sign and called right away and got the building. My husband had gained some valuable experience working for a Berkeley book wholesaler at the time and we had saved our money ’cause we knew we wanted to do something like that some day. We started out really small, and we’ve been putting just about everything back into it as we go, and it’s been growing quite a bit in the four years now.”

But as well as these necessary material pre-conditions for the existence of the shop, its life and success can be attributed both to what Diane is as a person, and to what she believes. She is very approachable, friendly and will give sound advice to the customer who requests help in making a selection. On the other hand, she will leave the customer to browse and look through the books, posters and cards on display.

Her interests as a shopkeeper do not lie in profits and expansion. On the contrary, she feels strongly about the importance of the small shop where the customer and his or her needs are all important. The shopkeeper and the customer can meet face-to-face and an exchange can take place, a sharing of ideas and, in this instance, a common love of books. The serving aspect of shopkeeping can be more than merely functional, and the shopkeeper can give the customer the personal attention and time that are sorely lacking in the more commercialized shops where the customer often times comes away feeling harassed and alienated.

“In the sharing aspects, in the personalization, lie one of the delightful things about having a store; and I think this is true of work with the public in general,” maintains Diane.

“I really love having the store,” she tell us, “and also I think this situation is ideal. I wouldn’t enjoy staying at home all the time, so this way I get both things; when I’m home, I’m home, and when I’m at work, I can devote my attention to that. And I enjoy this so much. It’s almost–well, I don’t want to be too misleading–sometimes it’s frustrating, and sometimes I’m tired, but most times it’s a very rewarding kind of thing, working for yourself.”

The depth of Diane’s interest in books is reflected in the excellent quality of the selections on display in the store, and the breadth of her own reading interests is mirrored in the diversity of the categories represented. Herein she hopes to cater to all the possible interests of the coastside reading public. “We try to have as wide a subject range as we can,” she says. “A lot of the time we may have only one copy of a book, but we do try to have as wide a range as we can.”

And while there is a demand for a varied range of subjects, according to Diane, “One of the main things we sell is books of local interest, local history. Our best selling book is called, The Last Whistle. That’s the one that is the story of the Ocean Shore Railroad that ran from San Francisco to Santa Cruz. The publishers of that book are a local company out at Berkeley and they do nothing but railroad books, but in our situation, The Last Whistle is the one we’re really interested in.

“On local history there are several books that have been written that touch on our area, but there’s no one book I know of right now that really gives a well-rounded history of Half Moon Bay, or even of this area of the Coastside.

“Combing the Coast comes closest to that, but it was intended to be a guide book, I think. It has a lot of history in it, and interesting tidbits, but it mainly tells you, if you are going on a drive, what to look for.

“But people often do ask me for a book about Half Moon Bay. Maybe they want to send it to their relatives back east, or even in Europe somewhere, to let them know where they are, and what’s happened in the past, and pictures of how the place looks right now.”

“I have found a book that comes close to fulfilling that need. I don’t know if you know about A Separate Place; it’s just about La Honda, San Gregorio and Pescadero. It interviews a lot of people, and has excellent back-and-white photos. Everything is recognizable, people, old barns.

“And then an interesting thing, too, when I was new here, I read South from San Francisco, which is an excellent history of San Mateo County. The author is Dr. Frank Stanger of the San Mateo County Historical Association. His writing is so much fun. He’s obviously a really lively person. He just has a lot of humor, and a really good way of putting together detail. So often history writing is dull, or emphasizes things that are very interesting to the historian, but not quite so much to the lay person who just wants to get the feeling for the area.

“It makes you feel in a way like you’ve found your roots because this is going to be your home.

“Then you suddenly see why–names, for example, like Pulgas Avenue, the fleas, or the names of the wealthy people which are now names of shopping centers or something in the landscape. You see why it’s there, and it’s really fascinating to figure out the backgrounds of people and what prompted them here, and what it was like in those days for them.

“History plays a really important part to a new individual in the area, and I think a history book is the nicest gift you could give someone new here. In particular, I like South from San Francisco. It isn’t in a very attractive cover, but it has the most information.

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